Do Not Kill: Do Not Even Desire The Death Of Another

Do Not Kill: Do Not Even Desire The Death Of Another April 27, 2009

Exodus 20:13 is a very short text, and yet there is no end to the disputes one can find over its interpretation. This is because it is a difficult passage to interpret, and it’s even more difficult to translate. The text traditionally has been read as “Do not kill,” though some people argue that it really means, “Do not murder.”[1] Both translations, to be sure, have some legitimate claim to them, but neither do justice to the text itself. For the Christian, such legalistic debate over the letter of the law is unnecessary, since they are to live by the higher law of Christ, which is the law of love.[2] And if this broader dictate is used to translate the text, then it is understandable why a translation of “do not kill” is the best option. Nonetheless, many translators use “do not murder” because the original command did not prohibit all kinds of killing.[3] But the word murder is problematic here; in English it has a specific meaning which is not equal to the Hebrew. In English, murder means, “The crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.”[4] Since it is described as a crime, this means it is a legal term. Even though something should be seen as murder, if the law does not declare the action as a crime, it would not be murder. If we would limit the kind of killing to only those kinds which a positive law has prohibited, then many things, such as abortion, which have been traditionally seen as prohibited by this text, would no longer be so. This is not the only problem with using the word murder to translate the text. The Hebrew word does not imply that there has to be “malice aforethought.” When we look at the use of the word in Scripture, we find its meaning is much broader than murder. The word in question is “tirtzach,” and it is used elsewhere, and when we find it used, it is easy to see how it does not simply mean “murder” but has a much broader semantic range.[5] The original text would be better understood as “do not do unjustified killing,” showing the vagueness of the original, and why it needed further clarification. What exactly is “unjustified”? 

Peter Lombard, and his short analysis of this text, shows us the basic Christian understanding: anytime we kill another person, or even desire to kill them, we sin.[6] We are expected to follow the law of love, and love does not kill. Love respects and honors the dignity of the other; killing does not. 

Secundum est: Non occides. The second command is, do not kill.[7]

Here, Lombard is merely giving us the command as it is found in the Vulgate. As has already been pointed out, the semantic range of this text is broad. But this is not broad enough. The spirit of the law expects more. 

Ubi secundum litteram actus homicidii prohibetur, secundum spiritum uero etiam uoluntas occidendi. Where the second is interpreted literally, it forbids homicide, but when it is interpreted according to the spirit, it forbids even the will to kill. 

Lombard shows that there are two different ways one can interpret the commandment (the second of the commandments which deal with our neighbor). One way is according to the letter of the law, and here, he makes it clear: homicide, the simple killing of another person, is forbidden. There is no exception, no vagueness. But according to another way one can and should read this text, that which follows the spirit of the law itself, we are told that we should not even desire to kill someone. “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mk  7:21-23). The law is violated as long as one desires that which it does not allow.”You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt  5:27-28). The one who desires the death of another, or even rejoices that someone has been killed, has violated the spirit of the law. The Christian is expected to defend all human life because of the innate dignity of the human person. “The life of each is equally sacred, and no one has the power, not even the public authority, to destroy it.”[8]

Unde huic mandato secundum litteram fit superadditio in euangelio, quia littera euangelii exprimitur, quod legis littera non exprimebatur. Whence this mandate, made according to the letter [of the law], is added to in the Gospel, for the letter of the Gospel articulates what the letter of the law did not. 

The Master of the Sentences reminds us that the Gospel added dictates and expectations to what was already understood by the law. As followers of Christ, all Christians must heed the words of Christ. When we explore them further, we find they show us the path of love. As long as our will is perverted and we desire that which we should not desire, we fail to live up to the expectations of love. In the time before grace, the law served as a warning, telling us what not to do, in order to help regulate society and to let us know what is and is not good. Without grace, no one has the ability to completely overcome all their inordinate desires. In his ministry, Jesus reengaged the commandments and showed us their real meaning. He showed what the intention of the law was, and this now moves us away from any debate as to what the letter of the law implies, because the spirit of the law necessarily transcends the letter. And because of the grace of the incarnation, Christ expects from us what is now possible. Grace, able as it is to perfect nature, requires us to work with it until we are indeed perfected. “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal  3:23-24). Now that Christ has given us his peace, now that the Spirit has been sent into the world, the law is no longer about the regulation of external actions; it is about the transformation of the heart. 

De sensu spirituali et carnali.  On the spiritual and carnal sense [of the law]. 

Euangelii littera exprimit intelligentiam spiritualem, id est quam spirituales habent, et secundum quam spiritualiter uiuitur; littera legis sensum carnalem, id est quem carnales habent, et secundum quem carnaliter uiuitur: Cui facta est superadditio. The letter of the Gospel raises up the spiritual understanding, which is what spiritual people have and is the way in which one lives spiritually; the letter of the Law is the carnal sense, which is what carnal people have, and it is the way in which one lives carnally: it was to this [carnal sense] an addition [by Christ] has been made. 

Those who are Christian, those who have been confirmed in the Spirit by chrismation, are expected to live the way of the spirit. A Christian must oppose all manifestations of death, but especially those within their own heart. Anyone who seeks to argue the letter of the law so as to find a loophole in it for the sake of a carnal desire has fallen away from the path of Christ. For the Christian, the Mosaic Law can only be interpreted and understood in the spirit, which is the way of Christ. And it is for this reason why the Christian tradition understands the verse as “do not kill,” and not merely, “do not murder.” “I say this in order that no one may delude you with beguiling speech” (Col 2:4). All attempts to bring the expectations back down to the flesh shows one has been seduced by the spiritless culture of death. Beguiled by the charms of sin, they seek once again to justify themselves in a carnal fashion. Such a path puts their very salvation at risk. It leads one away from Christ and back to the prison of the self. “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (Heb 6:4-6).


[1] Looking to the normative Greek and Latin translations of this text are not helpful. The Greek LXX is especially open-ended here, for it has the verse as οΰ φονεύσεις, with the word of interest to us being “φονεύω” which means to murder, slay, or kill. The Vulgate has the verse as non occides; the key word here is occido, which means to strike down, beat down, to slay, or to kill. Thus, the Latin does not suggest “murder” as a possibility while the Greek can be read with that connotation. 
[2] Cf. Mk. 12:29 -31; Lk. 6:27-8; John 13:34-5; John 15:9-17.
[3] This is because we find capitol punishment being used in the Law of Moses for various offenses, including those who break Ex 20:13. If all killing was prohibited, then how could one kill?
[4] Merriam-Webster Dictionary

[5] Cf. Num. 35:27, Deut 4:42, Deut 19:3, et. al.
[6] The text being used is that of Peter Lombard, Peter Lombard, Sentences. Book III, dist XXVII, c4.
[7] This is the second command upon the “second tablet,” that is, the tablet reflecting our relationship with our neighbors.
[8] Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubi. Vatican Translation (1930), par. 64.

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